We asked members of the Preservation50 team who attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s PastForward conference in Washington, D.C. from November 3-6 2015 to write a blog about a session that they felt corresponded to the Mission & Goals of P50 or to our Leverage Lessons Learned Topics.

The below is a blog by Working Group member Suzanne Brooks on session Questioning the Tools which took place on November 6, 2015 from 11:15am-12:30pm ET.

50 years ago, we were given a set of tools that allowed us to measure, mostly buildings, by their historical integrity and apply standards that would freeze those places in an era of time for future generations to have a glimpse into the past. But as we embark on our half-century mark of saving places, it’s time to question these well intentioned tools and how well they encompass the demands of our current culture.

This audit focused on some of preservation’s most demanding procedures; the Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, our strict enforcement of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for eligibility, and Section 106. Yet this discussion shed light on a problem that has been lying under the surface fifty years in the making. Preservation is failing to capture the whole American Story… Not on purpose, not that we aren’t trying to mark every significant place on the map, but because of our tools. And in the next 50 years, we will resolve this, and this is where we begin.

Moderated by Bradford White, Associate Director of the Alphawood Foundation and presidentially appointed General Public Member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, this critical look into our procedures was voiced by a panel of four individuals who represent areas of preservation and states in the continental US that arguably see a number of “out of the box” projects, shedding light on how these tools are leaving out parts of the American story by forcing history into a mold.   Whether they are sacred lands; such as trails, peaks, rivers, and landscapes that contain archeological districts and natural resources, or buildings that have undergone numerous changes to meet the needs of a changing community, these places across the country tell a story that cannot be fully captured under the microscope of our current tools. In the next 50 years, how do we meet the needs of these places and communities?

Given our current tools, how well are we really able to document our natural landmarks, from coast to coast? Historically, the massive expanse of our nation has been dissected into land parcels and “points”, creating a fractionalized view of the impact progress makes on the landscape. Alyson Brooks, Washington State Historic Preservation Officer, has had many successes documenting large expanses of rural landscapes with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in an effort to completely digitize the documentation of landmarks, increasing accessibility. The aerial view of these land areas allow for a better understanding of the greater impact a potential project may have on a significant landscape, rather than the typical parcel by parcel considerations. This breadth of sight can, and has, impacted the use of Section 106 for rural projects especially. With new technology, we will be able to not only grasp the enormity of our culture, but it raises questions for us to ponder into our anniversary year. Does protecting these significant places call for the conception of a comprehensive eligibility program that expands from buildings and districts to landscapes and natural resources? And have we done enough to educate Congress on why these cultural and natural resources are historic sites, just like the buildings with which we’re familiar?

While natural landmarks often fall outside of the mold, the built environment has strong criteria it is expected to meet in order to earn its significance. There is a portion of our history that is left out when applying these standards, however. The requirement to meet a level of historical integrity is a stumbling block for many physical locations that have seen many years of evolution to meet the needs of the community it serves. If we landmark buildings that are completely missing, why do we deem evolved structures insignificant, as Julianne Polanco, pointed out (California State Historic Preservation Officer)? Joe McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, noted that these elements were lost often in a historical event or for a historical reason.  These missing pieces of history play a larger role in our efforts to preserve culture through intangible heritage. Ancient languages, rituals, celebrations, lost artifacts, buildings, and landmarks fall into a category of cultural significance that our current tools cannot capture. McGill spends days on end surrounded by the ruins of the Slave Dwellings and attests that this intangible heritage establishes the minds that were behind these buildings. What does this mean for our standards? Do we establish new ones? Not put any in place at all?

Vince Michael, PhD, an International Thought Leader, notes that the “standards” are east to default to but rather, moving forward, how do we capture the intangible? UNESCO has implemented a management plan that incorporates curated music, stories, and even feeling, into the interpretive plan of its site to create a multi sensory experience.

For the moment, McGill sees this absence of cultural history in our registry and landmarks as an opportunity to play “catch-up”.   We essentially have the occasion to reinsert the intangibles into our landscapes creating a more whole image of our past.

After taking a look at some of the shortcomings of our current tools, one glaring thread runs through this discussion. Underrepresented communities. Holes are left in the American story with the absence of every detail; the macabre, the displaced, the forgotten.   Often, underrepresented communities feel that their neglected history has, unacceptably, set them apart from “mainstream history.” Polanco maintains that, barriers can be broken through participation in the sharing of their heritage. Whether through art, rituals and customs, or artifacts, ALL of the American story deserves to be told and who better to tell it than living generations.   Involving these demographics by inviting them to write their Register nominations and survey it’s significance, will not only give a voice to a this community, but tell a truthful story behind a physical place only heard through its intangible heritage. The proper treatment of sacred lands and items can be learned through cooperation with indigenous cultures, the endings to our written history can be filled in by the ancestors of those that survived it, and the proper nuance can given to the method in how these stories are displayed.

The obstacle of reaching these communities after years of oversight can be breached by engaging with groups early in a process. Establishing a pillar of the community that will resonate with all corners of the demographic, and remaining open to suggestion and “hands off” in the process, as Brooks has seen in Washington State, opens positive channels to preservation.

The tools that have been put in place to incentivize preservation and tell an accurate story of the American past have given us great success and legitimized the work of our field. Our due diligence in revisiting how we will progress with these same procedures will enable us to add to the American fabric through areas of our culture that go beyond the built environment and capture the lives that have molded a unique nation. We have much to look forward to with the tools at hand.